Aphelion is a Sci-Fi RPG featuring fast turn-based combat, a 5+ hour main storyline spanning the galaxy, rich characters, combo attacks, NewGame+, ability trees, crafting, and lots more. RPG veterans will enjoy the deep game mechanics while its accessibility reaches out to new comers to the RPG genre.
Aphelion: Episode One: Graves of Earth, a turn-based futuristic RPG with a style reminiscent of Sega's Phantasy Star, is the story of Private Savion Mercarte of the Ereit Peacekeeping Force. Under the command of Sergeant Ceda, he and his friend Ashley are dispatched to a space station to rescue the distressed Ambassador Andelen. It would appear that Andelen is being targeted by the Crimson, a race of Predator-like creatures named appropriately so for their crimson coloring. Of course, the mission doesn't go as planned with the transporters splitting the group apart and having to locate each other along with Andelen before escaping. Later plot twists and turns keep Aphelion's story compelling enough to pay attention to although struggling with its pacing at parts.
Poor pacing soon becomes is a point of contention with Aphelion. The player is allowed to savor some moments while others just come out of nowhere without any rhyme or reason. One early MacGuffin fails to impart any emotional impact as it should since it blindsides the player without any momentum nor enough background to keep the event grounded in the narrative. The characters are well portrayed for the most part, but the major moments of the episode feel rushed while the minor details are drawn out. The way the game just sort of dumps Savion into the game and rolls along with its tutorial exposition doesn't help as well. It's not that the writing is poor -- the inter-party dialogue is quite well done, and each character feels unique to the group even if they're essentially variations on stock RPG archetypes at this point -- but rather the direction is a bit off. It's definitely an aspect of the game I'd hope to see improved with the next episode as the world and characters definitely have the potential to turn into something very good, but the haphazard way the game shifts and jolts through the story only serve to cheapen it here.
Likewise, balance issues slightly diminish an otherwise impressive turn-based combat and system. While the random battle encounter rate is a bit high for my liking, the combat itself is fraught with options. Each character can attack, use a skill or item, or flee with each turn. As hits strike the enemy, a break guage (think limit break) fills and can be triggered once full with the X button, launching a free attack involving the whole party. Ability points earned via experience offer players a chance to customize characters to their liking via 13 abilities including among them three distinct skills trees to be explored, offering both active and passive techniques to be used in battle. Each character is outfitted with the standard weapon, armor, shield, and accessory, but Aphelion allows players to customize the weapon in a number of ways to provide certain character bonuses on top of that weapon's standard characteristics. Players can also find and purchase items to craft enhanced weapons and items. Aphelion practically drowns in complexity, and although most of it errs on the side of good, the aforementioned break attacks and a particular skill earned later in the game are potentially game breaking as far as they unintentionally kill any difficulty the battles could have had. Likewise, there are other odd balance decisions to be made as well -- I could not understand why the game was trying to sell me the Ereitian MK. II, a shield with +180 SH and +55 DEF, for the same 2,100 credits I could buy the Ereitian EN-Unit with its +245 SH +85 DEF +10 EN, in the same shop no less.
The graphics are stunning in stills but stutters in motion. The high definition artwork is quite well done, even if Savion appears to be enjoying his space adventure wearing sandals, but the jerky animation is noticeable and initially detracting, particularly while watching Savion move about his environment. The combat scenes are beautiful, and it's disappointing when the game transistions from its isometric viewpoint to the bland overhead the world employs. A few minor collision detection issues can get Savion stopped from entering an open doorway because the foreground wall blocks him when it should not interfere based on the game's perspective. I found it difficult to speak with certain people if they were seated, and some entryways are only known to be accessible because the mini-map at the corner of the screen indicates a clear path where the game displays a wall. Inconsistencies such as these annoy but never result in anything which will threaten Savion or impede the player much. They just stand out more because the indie chinks in the armor are made all the more apparent when a game otherwise looks and plays as good as Aphelion mostly does.
Aphelion: Episode One is a largely excellent debut from Lunatic Studios' Josh Spinell and Matt Kleen. Outstanding artwork and sound, a fairly well crafted story, loads of options, and a lengthy seven hour or so quest with plenty more to do beyond that easily make Aphelion the most impressive RPG on Xbox Indies. The few things which hold the game back are mostly easily fixable, and the current quality bodes extremely well for the anticipated future episodes.